From the Ridiculous to the Ridiculous

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If you care about language, that distinctively human enterprise, I don’t imagine that your duty is to preserve every expression and form of speech you inherited from the past, rejecting all innovations. Why would you do that?

No reason. That’s why I welcome such expressions as “tweet,” “message” (used as a verb), “embedded” (as in “a journalist embedded in the military”), and even “homie” (“homeboy”). They are expressive of situations, and concepts, that older words could not express. As a writer about prisons and criminology, I have no objection to “perp” and “cellie,” punchy variations on earlier words, and in actual use by large and informed communities (cops and convicts). As an academic bureaucrat, I have no principled objection to “silo” (used as a verb, meaning “cause to be isolated in one’s own bureaucratic zone”): it’s an apt metaphorical description of a real phenomenon. It’s also a fad word, and to be regretted on that score; and I don’t particularly enjoy the association with cows and fodder — although nonbureaucrats are welcome to enjoy it. But as Dr. Johnson said, the expression is sound at bottom. There’s an alternative expression, “stove-pipe,” which is used on television because (A) most TV people never saw a farm, but they may have seen a ski lodge with a decorative stove; and (B) the other TV people don’t want to insult, or seem to insult, the farmers, those sterling exemplars of heartland values. Me, I prefer “silo,” because that word brings the reality closer to the metaphor. People can work in silos, but they can’t work in stove pipes.

But lookit. We have no need for “issue,” one of our most common locutions, whenever this is employed as an inept euphemism for “problem.” My objection goes double for naked uses of the word, uses without an adjective or other explanatory signal. To say that a teenager “has issues” is no better than to say that he or she “has problems,” although it removes all conceptual punch from the noun. It “means” anything from “the kid is sometimes unhappy” to “the kid is a homicidal maniac.” Away with it.

Then we come to the medicinal use of “issues.” An omnipresent radio ad in my part of the world touts the services of a doctor who will deal with both “erectile issues” and “premature issues.” In other words, he will deal with anything that ails you, from your inability to come to your tendency to come like a fire hydrant before the fire even starts. These are “issues”? I think not. They may be problems, vexations, disgraces, even pleasures. But they are not “issues.” “Issues” means “things that are subject to debate.” Maybe coming right away is an issue, whose effects can be debated. If so, debate them. If not, say what you mean by “issues,” and why you insist on bringing them up.

To say that a teenager “has issues” means anything from “the kid is sometimes unhappy” to “the kid is a homicidal maniac.” Away with it.

The transition from “problems” to “issues” is an ominous sign for our civilization — in two ways. The first has to do with the anesthetization of real difficulties. To turn a problem, which is or ought to be a call to serious thought and action, into a mere issue, which is something to be contemplated or mused upon or dealt with by taking a pill . . . that is a terrible thing. Hitler was not an issue; he was a problem. Cancer is not an issue; it is a problem that people need to confront. A weird teenage kid isn’t an issue that you should sit around and jaw about; he or she is a problem that needs to be solved, if you can.

The other way in which issue is a problem involves the politicization of discourse, a process that proceeds apace in our chronically post-1960s society. “Issue” is a word appropriate to public debate; “problem” may include that sort of thing, but it also embraces the vastly larger area of difficulties and challenges in human (not merely political) life. “Issue” dissolves the distinction; it is, therefore, in the truest sense of the word, an evil locution.

Going on to lesser, though related, forms of evil . . . . I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, one of the worst innovations ever made in the world of writing is the slash. I mean the thing that comes between the two words in such expressions as

social/economic
men/women
novels/poetry
directors/administrators
climate/warming
and any other expression/phrase in which a slash could possibly be used/inserted.

A slash is a sign that a writer cannot or will not decide whether to use one word or another (which means one concept or another), or to use them both — which usually means that he or she is averse to conceptual thought. He or she can’t devote precious time to deciding whether to say “philosophy and ideology,” or “philosophy or ideology,” or “philosophy or ideology, or both,” or just “philosophy” or “ideology,” and therefore decides to let the reader slop along as well as possible with “philosophy/ideology,” required to make his or her own speculative decisions about what the author might possibly mean.

There is never a legitimate use for a slash. Say what you mean — if you mean anything.

“Climate/warming” raises an especially weighty issue/problem. The transition, or hesitation, between the two terms is emblematic of the concept creep that often, and illegitimately, establishes the terms of contemporary political debate. Consider “segregation.” In the 1950s and 1960s, “segregation” meant separation of races by law or governmental action. In the 1970s “segregation” came illicitly to mean “any situation in which blacks were not represented proportionately to whites.” Thus, I suppose, whites were segregated from black gospel music. It was a literally insane migration of meaning, but it exercised immense political and judicial influence, during a whole generation. A finding of statistical “segregation” might result in judicial mandates to alter fundamental patterns of life across a city or even a whole metropolitan area. Such findings, and the verbal confusions on which they were based, were significantly responsible for the “white flight” that rendered inner city neighborhoods more “segregated,” and more “impoverished,” than they had ever been before.

The cry of “segregation” is still, sometimes, heard today. In general, however, “diversity” has taken its place. The advantage of “diversity” is that no one can say what it means, although it means, at least, everything that “desegregation” used to mean, or not mean.

And speaking of the politicization of discourse . . . This month’s Boston bombing was too barbaric, and too ridiculous, to be politicized in an overt manner, among people not predisposed to see any bad event as an American conspiracy. But it was socialized in ways that illustrate how far politicized perceptions have seeped into the language of otherwise normal people.

In other words, he will deal with anything that ails you, from your inability to come to your tendency to come like a fire hydrant before the fire even starts.

A mysterious statement! Here’s what I mean. The two alleged culprits, the Tsarnaev brothers, were universally described by their acquaintances as quiet, too quiet to leave any specific insights or memory traces. Yet they were also universally described as nice boys of whom nothing evil could be believed.

This, I submit, is an unusual take on reality. Not only are such statements obviously self-confuting — how can you testify to someone’s niceness when you also testify that you don’t know anything much about him? — but they also turn the speakers into the kind of joke that everybody can recognize. “Yeah, I lived down the street from the guy . . . Real nice guy. Didn’t see much of him. He kept to himself. But I just can’t believe he’d do a thing like this.” For how many years has everyone been laughing about junk commentary like that? Yet it continues to be made, and communicated to the nation, after every fresh act of violence. One can only conclude that many people believe they have a duty to utter and purvey such absurd observations. Someone has taught them that duty.

I think the “someone” is the schools and the media, which continually preach that everyone is equal and equally good at heart — even such people as the Tsarnaev brothers. “He was one of the nicest kids,” said a college “friend” of the younger alleged murderer. “Every time I saw him, he made sure to say hi.” Yes, a very nice guy. The kind of guy who allegedly spent the weekend blowing legs off kids and the next few days working out in the college gym and partying with his chance acquaintances. “A fully assimilated American,” pronounced many of the TV news reporters.

The media are the principal enforcers of this bizarre social programming (I won’t call it education). “Possible bombing suspect cornered on boat,” said the CNN onscreen headline, even as Dzokhar Tsarnaev was being taken away under arrest, following a final blowout with the cops. Yes, a possible suspect. Not perhaps a real suspect, but maybe, just maybe, a possible one. The network was even more ignorant of words than it was slow with news, but it was careful to communicate its own niceness. “Possible suspect” indeed.

Widely and trustingly reported was the testimony of Dzokhar’s assistant high school wrestling coach (and who better to discern the inner truth about this sweet young man?). “A smart kid,” he said. And not just smart but a real American, according to the New York Times. “Boy at Home in U.S.,” it prattled. Evidence of smartness? Maybe the fact that Dzokhar managed to run over his brother with a stolen SUV, probably causing his death. Evidence of being at home in America? People on Fox News continually specified what they regarded as evidence in this category: Dzokhar smoked weed all the time and liked hip-hop music. Who says that Fox is the conservative network?

Petty grammarian that I am, I’m almost as discouraged by signs of creeping illiteracy as I am by proof of galloping nonsense. Reporting the giddy adventures of the Tsarnaev family — poster children for open immigration, who planted themselves in America by claiming political persecution from Russia, collected all the benefits they could in this country, then kept drifting back to Russia — the established media talked about one or another of them “starting school in America” or heroically “graduating high school in America.” This is the kind of locution one hears in supermarket ads, which encourage us to “Shop Bingo’s!” — Bingo’s being the place at which one is incited to shop. So “shop” is something one does to Bingo’s, just as “graduate” or “start” is something one does to a school. “Tell me, Dzokhar, what did you do to your high school?” “I graduated it.” Maybe, given enough time in the “adopted country” to which he was so well “assimilated,” he would have gone farther and blown it up.

As I admitted, I’m petty. But in the long run, literacy may be even more important than the Boston Marathon. True literacy requires the ability to recognize and reproduce basic patterns of language — to know, for example, when to use a transitive verb and when to use an intransitive one.

Or to know how to deal with strong verbs. There aren’t very many; you should be able to master them. But no. On Good Friday, the Fox News Jerusalem correspondent noted that “Christians sung hymns.” When I was in grade school, the grand example of strong verbs, the one that we were made to study, presumably because it was the easiest, was “sing-sang-sung.” Today, it seems, you can become a foreign correspondent without havinggraduated grade school.

It was a literally insane migration of meaning, but it exercised immense political and judicial influence, during a whole generation.

One thing I wasn’t taught at the Henrietta Township Rural Agricultural School was the progression “spit-spat-spat.” The reason was that everybody knew it. When you told the teacher on a fellow third-grader, there was no indecision about how to phrase your accusation. You said, “Teacher, teacher! Tommy Johnson spat on the playground!” Maybe that’s because backwoods people still read the Bible, actually sat and read the thing, and therefore knew about stuff like this. But when, in 2013, Justin Bieber, heartthrob of millions, or at least thousands, was accused of dealing unfairly with a neighbor, the headlines took this form, “Man Claims Bieber Spit on Him.” Hardly a “spat” in a carload, although the Los Angeles Times ran a story with “spat” in the body but “spit” in the headline. And, to remember other bodily functions, when was the last time you heard somebody say that he “shat” this morning? He (or she) may be too insecure about language to dare saying “shitted” (which is good); but if so, he’s bound to take the long way about and say “took a shit.”

This is not a good sign. It’s a sign that the rich sonic resources of the English language are being wantonly pissed away.

Worse is the steady progress of “snuck,” that strange folk attempt to create a new strong verb. Talk about backwoods language, and the language of children! Until recently, “snuck” was recognized by all, even its habitual users, as a colorful low-level colloquialism, ordinarily used for comic effect, and never to be used in formal writing. Then, a few years ago, it started showing up in presidential press conferences, news reports written by the weekend staff, and other low-end outlets. And now, here it is! It’s arrived! Snuck has made it to the headlines. Chronicling the behavior of an Ohio murderer who behaved badly at his sentencing, respectable news agencies offered headlines of this kind: “How TJ Lane Snuck in a Shirt with ‘Killer’ on it.” They weren’t trying to be entertaining; they were just being ignorant. And not one of them headlined “sneaked.”

Here’s a headline I’d like to see: “How Illiteracy Snuck in Everywhere.”




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Comments

Barbara Bohan

Hello Professor Cox! I am delighted to have discovered your Liberty online magazine. I am especially fascinated by your Word Watch column. I promise to write you a proper letter soon to be delivered by a postman in a stamped envelope. (As opposed to the comment section of your publication.) Oh, one more thing, stop calling yourself a "petty grammarian."

Geezer

The folks at Merriam-Webster report:
“From its earliest appearance in print in the late 19th century as a dialectal and probably uneducated form, the past and past participle snuck has risen to the status of standard and to approximate equality with sneaked. It is most common in the United States and Canada but has also been spotted in British and Australian English.”

Johnimo

I love your columns. I am forced to review my poor command of the English language, and I enjoy the many examples you provide. However, I suspect that "silo" as a verb has more to do with Missile Launch Officers in the USAF than with its agricultural origins. Those guys go down underground and really do silo themselves for several days at a time.

Thank you for your insight. Keep up the good work.

Paul Bartlett

The good professor leads his essay with, "If you care about language, that distinctively human enterprise, I don’t imagine that your duty is to preserve every expression and form of speech you inherited from the past, rejecting all innovations. Why would you do that?

No reason. That’s why I welcome such expressions as “tweet,” ...."

And yet, toward the end of his essay, he castigates use of "snuck." Why is the former acceptable, but the latter not? Language changes. Yes, as a child in the stereotyped little red brick semi-rural schoolhouse in the 1950s, I learned intensely prescribed usage, and there are many morphological, syntactic, and orthographic errors today which still give me the willies. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that whether the good professor and I like it or not, language changes. Chaucer is dead, however delightsome his poems.

Historically, undoubtedly, in English far more strong verbs became weak than vice versa, but I cannot discern that there is Some Law Writ Large In The Nature Of The Cosmos which prohibits a hitherto weak verb to become strong. Yet again, language changes. To me, "snuck" is an entirely valid, useful, and acceptable verb form. I now encounter it far more often than "sneaked." Shall we now say that one may never use "impact" as a verb?

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